The excesses of hyper-earnest white liberals who endlessly congratulate themselves for being politically “woke’’ — perhaps you know a few such people in the 617 area code? — make them a tempting target of satire.
Playwright Larissa FastHorse turns that low-hanging fruit into a pretty tasty meal in her wryly funny “The Thanksgiving Play,’’ now at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, directed by Scott Edmiston.
Edmiston’s cast of four delivers expert comic performances in “The Thanksgiving Play,’’ in which a group of “teaching artists’’ — or, as one would have it, “enlightened white allies’’ — set out to devise a theater piece for elementary school students that provides a “culturally sensitive’’ take on Thanksgiving. When a cast member believed to be Native American turns out to be no such thing, chaos erupts.
You can see a few of the punchlines coming up Clarendon Street, and in the final third of its roughly 90 minutes, “The Thanksgiving Play’’ loses a bit of its focus. But on balance FastHorse hits the mark with rewarding regularity
A member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, and one of very few female Native American dramatists whose work has been produced in Boston, FastHorse has crafted “The Thanksgiving Play’’ in the spirit of affectionate satire rather than the scathing, take-no-prisoners variety favored by, say, the young Christopher Durang. (That satire extends to theater itself; “The Thanksgiving Play’’ contains a deadpan joke about dramaturgs that prompted knowing chortles at the performance I attended.)
But the playwright deftly makes points that need making about representation and, to borrow a line from “Hamilton,’’ the crucial matter of “who tells your story.’’ What also comes through loud and clear in “The Thanksgiving Play’’ are the patronizing attitudes that can sometimes underlie strenuous efforts at historical inclusion.
Recognizing that there are worse things than fumbling good intentions, FastHorse shrewdly interpolates throughout “The Thanksgiving Play’’ brief scenes inspired by actual school plays tied to the holiday. They are tone-deaf and worse, including one in which a teacher notes: “I divide my students into Indians and Pilgrims, so the Indians can practice sharing.’’
Leading the attempt to, in her words, “break down the myths and stereotypes of Thanksgiving,’’ is director Logan (Amanda Collins), a drama teacher. Logan’s goal is to produce “something revolutionary in children’s educational theater’’ by shifting the focus to Native American Heritage Month. With her usual deftness, Collins nails the compound of idealism, ambition, and insecurity that feeds Logan’s nervous energy as she bounds about a classroom (the set is by Janie E. Howland) that features colored beanbag chairs, cubbies containing students’ belongings, and signs reading “No-Bully Zone’’ and “Throw kindness around like confetti.’’
Logan’s collaborators include her boyfriend, Jaxton, an ultra-PC yoga practitioner and street performer portrayed by an amusingly spacy Jesse Hinson, and Caden, a nerdy elementary school history teacher who has a passive-aggressive streak and a quite misplaced belief in his talent for playwriting (ace underplayer Barlow Adamson).
But the most crucial voice in the room as far as that trio is concerned is that of Alicia (the wonderful Grace Experience), a Native American actress from Los Angeles. Or at least the others think she is Native American. She is, in fact, not, although, as Alicia helpfully explains: “My look is super-flexible.’’
It’s a mark of playwright FastHorse’s artfulness that she allows the misconception to linger just long enough, until it is clear how completely Alicia’s whiteness, once discovered, will undermine the entire premise of the Thanksgiving play-within-the-play.
FastHorse has an astute ear for the linguistic contortions of people who tie themselves in elaborate knots to choose and use the right word, to choose and hold the right positions on the moral and political spectrum. How elaborate? Jaxton frets that using the word “American’’ in their play “could be a trigger for people.’’ Logan, a devout vegan, refers to Thanksgiving as “the holiday of death’’ with a completely straight face.
Speaking of straight faces: Experience is simply hilarious as Alicia. She perfectly nails the combination of vacuity and serenity of a character who doesn’t have a mean bone in her body — and also doesn’t have any qualms about floating through her acting career on the strength of a beauty of indeterminate ethnicity.
THE THANKSGIVING PLAY
Play by Larissa FastHorse. Directed by Scott Edmiston. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Through Nov. 10. Tickets start at $25, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.